Artists' Artists - Sabine Moritz

Artists write about a work of art that has influenced them

Matthias Grünewald, The Crucifixion, Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1512–16

Matthias Grünewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece (detail showing St John the Evangelist and the Virgin), c. 1512–16, oil on panel. Courtesy: Musée Unterlinden, Colmar, and Bridgeman Images

Matthias Grünewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece (detail showing St John the Evangelist and the Virgin), c. 1512–16, oil on panel. Courtesy: Musée Unterlinden, Colmar, and Bridgeman Images

When this invitation to write about a work from the past arrived, I first thought of Francisco Goya’s portrait of a middle-aged woman, her stout arm against a turquoise dress, coarse flecks of orange, everything dissolving; I step back, the woman moves, breathes. Or Édouard Manet’s Luncheon in the Studio (1868) — the boy’s face an enigma of reticence and beauty. Or about my insatiable appetite for Paul Cézanne’s pictures of his wife and son.

But my first significant encounter with a painting was with The Crucifixion from Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1512–16). I was very young and my memory of the experience is dominated by my shock at seeing the boundless suffering of the man on the cross — bewilderment at the depiction of torture and the actual possibility of such cruelty.

Later, my attention shifted to the figures on the left: John, the disciple, holding Mary, the mother. I could not remember ever having seen such an intense, somehow perfect expression of grief. Her eyes are closed, her hands
are folded and the pain of her loss seems to be spreading through her as we watch. Johnis looking at her and his hands touch her. As a result, the viewer’s emotional response is expanded to include a feeling of comfort.

How is it possible, using only the means of painting, to show such depths of pain, grief and comfort? Paradoxically, it seems to call for a certain kind of beauty. But that can only be part of the answer. For me, these two figures opened the door to the enigmatic and complex world of the Isenheim Altarpiece and opened my eyes to the immense possibilities of painting.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Sabine Moritz lives in Cologne, Germany. In 2015, she had a solo show at Pilar Corrias, London, UK. Her solo show at Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris, France, opens 28 October.

Issue 5

First published in Issue 5

October 2016

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